Taking Steps Toward Better Health: The Benefits of Walking

We celebrate a baby’s first steps as a key milestone in life, cheering, clapping, and recording the moment. But the steps we take – or don’t take – later in life can be just as important.

That’s because those steps can carry us toward a happier, healthier life, say health and fitness experts like Gina McDonald, the senior health coach in Health Promotion and Wellness at Capital BlueCross.

“It’s the heart, lungs, brain, muscles and joints – all of that comes into play,” McDonald said, adding that exercise in the right amounts can also help reduce stress and ease mild to moderate depression.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, took it a step further, telling Harvard Health Publishing that walking was “the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.”

Walking can help people maintain a healthy weight, stave off heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve everything from a person’s balance and coordination to his or her mood.

Some studies suggest walking has other surprising benefits:

In a study of more than 12,000 people, Harvard Medical School researchers found that those who walked briskly for an hour or more per day reduced the impact of obesity-promoting genes by half.

An American Cancer Society study found that women who walked seven or more hours a week had a 14% lower risk of breast cancer than those who walked three hours or fewer per week even among women with breast cancer risk factors.

A study by researchers at the University of Rhode Island, and published in Clinical Interventions in Aging in 2006, and a separate study by researchers from Northwestern University and published by the American College of Rheumatology, concluded that walking can reduce joint pain.

Capital BlueCross recently joined with WellSpan Health and WITF’s Transforming Health program to create the “To the Moon And Back Walking Challenge.”

More than 1,000 people from all over Central Pennsylvania have so far signed up for the challenge that began June 15, and are logging their daily steps. The group is trying to amass the 1.009 billion steps that it would take to complete an imaginary walk to the moon and back by Sept. 7.

All walking, even slow walking, has benefits, McDonald said. “At least you’re moving, which is good for the skeleton.” But she added: “If you want to boost your benefits, increase your speed.”

McDonald said there are useful physiological indicators that can help people determine the right level of exertion during exercise – sweat, increased heart rate, and increased difficulty speaking, or what she calls the talk test.

“If you can sing, pick up the pace,” she said. If you’re winded and too short of breath to string a few words together, “slow it down. Listen to your body. You don’t have to run to get fit. Just challenge yourself walking.”

Walkers can challenge themselves by walking up hills, or increasing walking speed for brief intervals of time. “Either way, you are going to increase your breathing which is going to increase your calories burned and increase your cardiovascular fitness,” McDonald said.

For those who are anxious to abandon their sedentary lifestyles and seek better fitness through walking, McDonald has these words of advice.

“Consistency and patience are the two most dedicated things a person needs to have wellness in their life because if they don’t have one, they won’t have the other. If they want a quick fix, it’s not going to happen,” she said.

“So I tell people just to get in. Have fun.